I'm lucky enough to be in Barcelona for the IUCN World Conservation Congress and on Monday I attended the ibat's standing-room-only launch. The significance of this biodiversity toolkit which helps businesses and development banks (and hopefully governments and those charged with writing environmental assessments) is indicated by the positive review it received in the latest issue of The Economist.
The ibat now makes it possible to discover with just a few mouse clicks which protected areas of which types—and even unprotected areas key to biodiversity conservation—are adjacent to any point on earth. One can produce one's own map and then make a pdf file of it. Not only this, but ibat links seamlessly (or rather will do so from mid-October) to UNEP-WCMC's wholly revised and improved World Database on Protected Areas (launched a few hours after the ibat) from which the basic data about the site can be found with links to information on its threatened species on the IUCN 2008 Red List (also launched on Monday), and will link to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility data, though this is so far only available for Spain and Madagascar.
ibat means there is now no excuse for project proponents or for those conducting environmental assessments not to take account of what the Bank refers to as 'critical natural habitats' in the meaning of our Policy on Natural Habitats, i.e., sites which are legally protected, sites officially proposed for protection, or unprotected sites which are nevertheless of known high conservation value. These are the sites which are projects are forbidden to significantly convert or degrade. I would hope that after we have been able to see how it works in practice in our due diligence on scoping natural habitat issues in our projects, we might be able to institutionalize its use in some way.
This tool is the product of years of hoping and trialing, cajoling and promoting, fund-raising and cooperating, and has morphed through a variety of acronyms. The main conservation organizations which have pulled this off are BirdLife International and Conservation International, and UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). ibat would not have been possible without the financial support of the Bank of America, BP, Cargill, Chevron, JP Morgan Chase and other major corporate partners. They all deserve to feel very pleased with what has finally been achieved.
In understanding the achievement one has to realize that BirdLife, CI and UNEP-WCMC have been working towards this goal for a long time. I can remember UNEP-WCMC staff coming to the Bank at least a decade ago presenting early ideas of such a tool and looking for sponsorship. Over the years it has moved forwards in fits and starts and at times has been moribund as the partners got bogged down over issues of data ownership, etc. In fact it was their large private sector partners who pushed them to reach the necessary accords because they needed to know the answers the ibat provides.
ibat really is a dream come true though no one would contend it is perfect. It doesn't yet show the non-'critical' natural habitats which we also have to be wary of. It doesn't yet provide data for species which have not been assessed for threat. However, the more it is used by more parties so clear directions can be provided for its future development.